The 25th April 1792 saw the world’s first use of the guillotine as a method of execution. Nicolas Jacques Pelletier, a French highwayman found guilty of killing a man during one of his robberies, was the guillotine’s first – but by no means last – victim.
Pelletier’s status as a common criminal was significant. Prior to the French Revolution, beheading as a form of execution had been reserved for the nobility. Commoners were usually subjected to longer and arguably more painful deaths through hanging, or worse. To end the privilege of the nobility, the National Assembly therefore made decapitation the only legal form of execution.
It was recognised that manual beheading was, however, still a gruesome form of execution. On 10th October 1789, physician Joseph Guillotin argued that every execution should be swift and mechanical. The National Assembly agreed, acknowledging that capital punishment should simply end life, not purposefully cause pain as well.
Another physician, Antoine Louis, was appointed to lead a committee to develop a quick and efficient decapitation machine. Although Guillotin was a member of this committee, it is actually therefore Antione Louis who is credited with the device’s invention, even though it carries the Guillotin’s name.
As for the highwayman Pelletier, his execution went smoothly – much to the disappointment of the crowd who expected better ‘entertainment’. Excited to see the new machine in action, they were disappointed at its speed and efficiency.
On the 3rd April 1882, the American outlaw Jesse James was shot dead by fellow gang-member Robert Ford. His death became a national sensation – James had been a famous Confederate guerrilla fighter during the Civil War, and had become America’s most wanted criminal in the years since.
As a train robber, James and his gang rarely robbed passengers. This may have led to their popular association with the legend of Robin Hood – stealing from the rich to give to the poor. However, there is no evidence that the James gang actually shared their loot with anyone but themselves.
Despite their early success, by 1881 the gang was falling apart. Many members had fled, or been killed or arrested, and so Jesse James was forced to ally with new gang members. In January 1882 one of his new associates, Robert Ford, met with Missouri Governor Thomas T. Crittenden and agreed to kill James in return for a full pardon for his own crimes and a $10,000 reward.
On the morning of April 3rd, shortly before leaving their safe house to rob the Platte City bank, James noticed a dusty picture on the mantelpiece. As he stood on a chair and turned to clean it, Robert Ford shot him in the back of the head. He presented himself to the police where, on the same day, he was charged with murder, pled guilty, sentenced to death by hanging, and then granted a full pardon by Governor Crittenden.
On the 2nd January 1981, serial killer Peter Sutcliffe – otherwise known as the Yorkshire Ripper – was arrested by police. Found guilty of murdering 13 women over a six-year period, and of attempting to murder a further seven, he was sentenced to life imprisonment in May 1981. In 2010 the High Court issued him with a whole life tariff which means that he is likely to stay in jail until his death.
Although Sutcliffe first assaulted a woman in 1969, his famous series of attacks began in 1975. Many theories exist regarding his motive, with some focusing on a hatred of prostitutes after he was conned out of money by one. Despite the connection between Sutcliffe and prostitutes, not all his victims were sex workers. However, it was after police stopped him with a prostitute in his car on the 2nd January 1981 that he was finally arrested. He was taken into custody as his car had false number plates, but while in Dewsbury Police Station the similarities between him and the Yorkshire Ripper’s profile led him to be questioned about the case.
Sutcliffe admitted to being the Ripper two days later, on the 4th January, and while in custody claimed that he heard the voice of God commanding him to kill prostitutes. The prosecution wanted to accept his plea of diminished responsibility after four expert psychiatrists diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia. However, the judge rejected the plea and therefore the case went to full trial. Since he had already admitted guilt as part of his plea, the jury were asked to determine his mental state rather than his guilt.
In November 1923 Hitler had led an attempted coup against the Weimar Government by trying to seize power in the Bavarian city of Munich. The putsch failed and Hitler was found guilty of treason in the subsequent trial. Sentenced to five years imprisonment, he was sent to the Festungshaft prison in the Bavarian town of Landsberg am Lech.
Hitler’s ‘fortress confinement’ provided him with a reasonably comfortable cell in comparison to conventional facilities, and meant that he was able to receive mail and have regular visitors. The discovery in 2010 of more than 500 documents relating the Hitler’s imprisonment show that more than 30 people were able to visit him on his birthday on 20 April 1924, just 19 days into his sentence.
Imprisonment provided Hitler with the opportunity to dictate his autobiography, Mein Kampf, to his deputy Rudolf Hess. It was in this book that Hitler laid out his blueprint for the future of Germany. Although it gained only modest success when it was first published, Winston Churchill later claimed that if world leaders had read it they could have better anticipated the scale of Nazi domestic and foreign policy.
In a memorandum dated 18 September 1924, the Landsberg warden Otto Leybold described Hitler as “sensible, modest, humble and polite to everyone – especially the officers of the facility”. He was released on 20 December 1924 after serving on nine months of his five-year sentence and soon set about rebuilding the Nazi Party which had been banned in Bavaria as a result of the Beer Hall Putsch. The ban was lifted less than two months after Hitler’s release.
On the 15th December 1933, the Twenty-first Amendment to the United States Constitution came into effect, repealing the Eighteenth Amendment which had made the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol illegal. Having been proposed on the 20th February 1933, it was ratified on the 5th December.
Prohibition was introduced in 1920 as a result of the 18th Amendment. This ban on the sale, production, importation, and transportation of alcoholic beverages was greeted with delight by members of the temperance movement, but many law-abiding Americans who had previously been drinkers felt anger towards the government for criminalising what they viewed as a harmless activity.
As a result, some members of the public were willing to break the law, and this quickly ushered in a period of criminal activity focused around the production of illegal bootlegged alcohol. Al Capone, one of prohibition’s most famous gangster bosses, made around $60 million a year from bootlegging alcohol and selling it in so-called ‘speakeasies’.
Izzy Einstein, one of the government’s most famous prohibition agents, demonstrated the scale of the problem facing the authorities who were trying to enforce the ban on alcohol. When visiting New Orleans it took Einstein just 35 seconds to obtain liquor after his taxi driver offered him a bottle of whisky.
Combined with many police officers being paid by the criminals to turn a blind eye to illegal activity, prohibition brought lawlessness and corruption to America. In the wake of the Wall Street Crash, repealing prohibition made sound economic sense, although the introduction of the 21st Amendment ensured that individual states were still able to enforce their alcohol laws.
On the 31st August 1888, Mary Ann Nichols – commonly known as Polly – became the first confirmed victim of Jack the Ripper in the Whitechapel area of London. Not only had her throat been cut, but her body had been mutilated. Her corpse was left next to a gate in Buck’s Row, which is now known as Durward Street, and was discovered by a cart driver. It was three weeks before the inquest was concluded, by which time a second murder with a similar modus operandi had been committed. On studying the body of Annie Chapman, the coroner noted that “The similarity of the injuries in the two cases is considerable.”
Nichols was 43 years old when she was murdered, having found herself forced to live in boarding houses and workhouses after her alcoholism led her husband to leave her. She turned to prostitution as a way to earn money and, in the early hours of the night she was murdered, had gone out to make enough money to pay for her bed in a boarding house at 18 Thrawl Street.
An hour before her murder, her friend and roommate Nelly Holland spoke to her as she walked the streets. Nichols had already spent her night’s earnings on drink, and so continued to search for customers. Holland was the last person to see her alive before her body was found by Charles Cross at 3.40am.
Nichols’ killer was never found, and debate continues to rage about the identity of the Whitechapel murderer who was given the nickname ‘Jack the Ripper’.
Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre on the 21st August 1911. Described by some as the greatest art theft of the 20th century, the museum itself didn’t even realise that the painting had been stolen until the next day.
Italian Vincenzo Peruggia had previously worked at the Louvre. Acting alone, he hid in a cupboard inside the museum on the evening of the 20th August and exited on the morning of Monday 21st – a day when the museum would be closed for cleaning – wearing a smock identical to all the other museum employees. With the museum deserted of visitors, he entered the Salon Carré where the painting hung and simply removed it from the wall.
Making his way to a stairwell, Peruggia removed the glass that had only recently been fitted to protect the painting from vandalism, and discarded the frame. Leaving both the glass and the frame behind, he simply hid the painting – which was painted on a plank of poplar wood – under his smock and left the museum.
The Mona Lisa lay hidden in Peruggia’s Paris apartment for two years before he decided to take it to Italy in 1913. Here he made contact with Alfredo Geri, a gallery owner, on the 10th December who in turn contacted the director of the famous Uffizi gallery. The two men took the painting ‘for safe keeping’ and informed the police. Peruggia served just six months in jail for the robbery, and was hailed by many Italians as a nationalist hero for returning the Mona Lisa to her real home.
I’m very grateful to Giselle K. Jakobs for her thorough research and detailed website about the focus of today’s podcast – her grandfather, Josef Jakobs. You can visit her website at http://www.josefjakobs.info/
The last execution at the Tower of London took place on the 15th August 1941. Josef Jakobs was a German spy who was arrested after he signalled for help after breaking his ankle when he parachuted into Britain.
Jakobs had served in the German Army during the First World War, and became a dentist in the interwar period. However, due to impact of the worldwide depression he turn to selling fake gold, for which he served two and a half years in jail.
After his release, Jakobs became involved in providing counterfeit passports to German Jews fleeing Hitler’s regime. However, he was arrested in 1938 and sent to a concentration camp from which he was released in 1940.
Within six months Jakobs had begun training with the Abwehr – the intelligence wing of the Germany Army – and on the 31st January 1941 dressed in a business suit and parachuted into England. Having broken his ankle, he was found the next morning in a field near Dovehouse Farm in Huntingdonshire.
Jakobs was taken into custody, and was held at Dulwich Hospital in London while complications with his broken ankle were treated. Eventually he was transferred to Wandsworth Prison, where he was formally charged with espionage and tried by General Court Marshall in early August since he didn’t have British nationality and was a formal member of the Germany Army.
Found guilty, he was taken to the miniature firing range at the Tower of London on the 15th. Having been strapped to a wooden Windsor chair, he was killed by firing squad at 7:12 a.m.
On the 8th August 1963, a gang of 15 men attacked a Royal Mail train heading from Glasgow to London and stole over £2.6million in cash. Worth £50million today, the vast majority of the money was never recovered.
A core team of five men with backgrounds in organised crime planned the robbery over a number of months before drafting in support from another group of criminals with experience in train robberies. Central to the plan was information about the amount of money carried on Royal Mail trains, and this was supplied by a Salford postal worker known to the gang as ‘The Ulsterman’.
On the night of the robbery, the gang tampered with the signal at ‘Sears Crossing’ in Ledburn, Buckinghamshire in order to stop the train. Having overpowered the driver and the second crew member, the gang drove the train half a mile to a location where they could load the stolen bags of money onto a waiting Austin Loadstar truck.
Forcing their way in to the High Value Packages coach, the gang met only little resistance from the five postal workers inside the carriage and so ordered them to lie down on the floor in the corner while the bags of money were removed.
Having set themselves a time-limit of 30 minutes to carry out the robbery, 8 bags were left behind on the train when the gang drove to their hide-out at Leatherslade Farm. Here the loot was divided up, and the robbers dispersed before the police could find them. However, the majority were later arrested and convicted.
On the 5th August 1962, Nelson Mandela was arrested near the South African town of Howick and imprisoned facing charges of inciting workers’ strikes and leaving the country without a passport. He wasn’t released for nearly 28 years.
Mandela was a leading figure of the anti-apartheid movement and protested peacefully against the racist system. However, having been imprisoned after being found guilty of treason, he adopted more militant tactics on his release and soon became a wanted man. His arrest came after he spent 6 months travelling in disguise around Africa and to London in order to win support for the movement.
The trial began on the 15th October, with Mandela representing himself and using his defence speeches as a way to promote the African National Congress’ “moral opposition to racism”. In his “black man in a white man’s court” speech, for example, he said he would serve the sentence handed down by the court but would continue to fight against racial discrimination.
Having been sentenced to five years imprisonment Mandela was jailed in Pretoria, Robben Island, and Pretoria again within a 9 month period. Shortly after his return to Pretoria he and nine other defendants were charged on four counts of sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government and put on trial in what became known as the “Rivonia Trial”. The trial brought international attention to the anti-apartheid struggle but, having been found guilty, Mandela and his co-defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment. Mandela was finally released in 1990 after 27 years, six months and five days.